Just over an hour ago I heard of the death of Canon John Lennon. Canon John was a good man, a quiet friend and a holy priest, he died in the sixty seventh year of his priesthood, and he was a priest through and through. He sought no high office, he sought no reward for doing his job and a more faithful man you’d be hard pushed to find.
I first met Canon John in the very late 1990s when he had retired from active ministry and moved into my parish with his housekeeper, Ann. Ann was a little, birdlike lady who tended to Canon John as if he were her son. She was about two thirds of his height and I clearly remember the sight of her making him bend over so she could do his scarf up warmly.
However, Ann went and scuppered Canon John’s retirement plans when she died of a stroke. I was in diaconate formation at the time and served her requiem Mass, it was a clergyfest, they had come from far and wide. Canon John presided which was exceptionally touching, particularly as he gave us a minor glimpse of emotion during the opening prayer, but ever the professional, he carried his duty out with aplomb.
In the time he was with us I recall him going to Rome twice, he was an acquaintance of Cardinal Sodano and liked to tell us of his visits to him. It was unfortunate that Canon John’s fifteen minutes of fame came via his association with Thornton Heath. 28 November 1999, he was presiding at 10am Mass, we were saying the Creed when a man wielding a sword entered the church and attacked people. The congregation lept into action and the man was restrained. But with his poor eyesight Canon John was not quite sure what was going on! When one of my friends attempted to take a large candlestick from the sanctuary with which to fend off our attacker, Canon John stopped him “This is a sacred space, you cannot act like this” he said.
In all the carnage that was going on around him within the church, aware that those that needed help were being tended to, Canon John took a handful of the faithful to the side altar and finished the Mass there. Later he was interviewed on the TV news, the interviewer was astounded he could not see what was happening in front of him as the attack took place. Taking off his ‘milk bottle bottom’ glasses he held them up to his interviewer and said “you don’t get these in an hour from Specsavers”.
After Ann’s death Canon John moved to Meadow View Road nursing home where Pope Benedict visited in 2010. I used to see the nuns from here on a Friday when they came into the Flower Market, I used to ask after him and they’d tell me he was still the ‘gentle man’ he ever was.
The last time I saw Canon John was a moment of pure comedy. I cannot think what the Mass was for but I was in the sacristy at St George’s Cathedral as I was deaconing. Another of our diocesan venerable gentlemen, Canon John Devane, came in and was chatting to me. He always knew me as ‘The BTG boy who became a deacon’* Canon Devane explained that he and Canon Lennon would me going onto the sanctuary from the sacristy as they were now both rather infirm.
Canon Lennon came into the sacristy, Canon Devane said
“How are you John?”
Holding his hand up to shield his eyes Canon Lennon headed straight for the few stairs to the sanctuary saying
“Still blind then” said Devane
“What did you say?” said Lennon
“And deaf” said Devane, as he followed Canon Lennon up the stairs
“Hello John” said Canon Lennon as Canon Devane followed him. Each step was a chore for Canon Lennon, which Canon Devane registered with the words
“I’m not deaf” said Canon Lennon who then turned and smiled at me. This gave me leave to stop the polite stifling of my laughter and guffaw like the buffoon I am. I was still doing so when I was joined by other members of the clergy who enjoyed the tail.
In the early days of my diaconate I had the privilege of acting as Canon Lennon’s valet as I helped him straighten his chasuble and fix the radio mike for him. I don’t feel sad today, I know it’s cliche but I feel privileged that he knew my name and I’d just love to know what he is experiencing right now, because whatever it is, we that knew him know, it’s all good.
*BTG = Bishop Thomas Grant, my secondary school.